Steelers defensive back Thomas isn't conceding starting position yet
Despite being listed as Troy Polamalu's backup at strong safety at the end of last season, Shamarko Thomas hoped to challenge for the starting free safety job after Ryan Clark signed with Washington.
Thomas played both positions during his rookie season. But after a season in which the secondary consistently was torched, the Steelers opted to replace Clark with an experienced free safety.
The signing of veteran Mike Mitchell to a $25 million deal suggests Thomas will play mostly in nickel and dime packages this season. But the second-year safety from Syracuse said he now is more able to “fly around and do whatever they want me to do.”
“I picked up a lot playing multiple positions last year,” Thomas said during last month's organized team activities (OTAs). “The playbook is easier to learn, but I need to come out every day as if it's game day.
“I was all over the place last year because I didn't know the playbook. I was thrown into the fire, and sometimes I got burned. I'm more knowledgeable about this defense.”
Thomas enters training camp next weekend at St. Vincent feeling confident about his chances of redefining his role. He isn't searching for more playing time. Instead, he's hoping to impact a defense that largely was inconsistent during a second consecutive 8-8 season.
“It's going to be hard getting on the field because we have a lot of athletes and veterans on the roster,” said Thomas, who made two starts in 2013 and finished with 29 combined tackles. “It's lot of competition, so I have to learn from them to make my game better.”
“I think competition makes all of us better,” safety Will Allen said. “Shamarko is a competitor, and he proves it every day.”
Thomas is convinced he learned enough during the past year to earn more playing time. As a result, he isn't willing to concede the starting job to Mitchell.
“The expectation is to start, but at the end of the day, it's about what the coaches want,” Thomas said. “But don't get it wrong, we're going to compete.”
Thomas constantly reminds himself of the powerful words his mother, Ebeth Shabazz, shared with him long before her death.
“My mom taught me that if there's something you want, go get it,” Thomas said. “She always said there's no time to take a break.
“She always said God won't give you more than you can handle. I always keep that in my head. Everybody wants to be a starter, so it's why I believe that it'll happen when it's time.”
Thomas insists his biggest challenge is being patient. He credits Polamalu with keeping him grounded and focused during his rookie season.
“I'm going to stay in Troy's ear,” he said. “We're not just talking about football. We're talking about life because if you're not consistent off the field, then you won't be consistent on the field.
“I feel like I'm in my zone because I've been consistent with my workouts and learning something every day. I've been through a lot of trials and tribulation, so my faith has allowed me to be patient.
“I'm just going to keep working and grinding, and everything will come together.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.